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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Human rights, cultural rights, Indigenous education and giving progressive agendas a go

Martin Nakata
Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney

Whenever I return to the Torres Strait I am struck by the growing police presence that has occurred in the 20 years since I left - quite disproportionate to the increase in population. Lotus Glen prison, near Cairns, will soon have to be declared a settled territory of the Torres Strait Islands because of the growing numbers of Islander inmates.

What is wrong?

What is wrong when my cousin's 19-year-old son can die in a police-chase on an island with barely ten kilometres of road?

What were the police thinking?

That he might get away?

That youthful misdemeanour warrants being chased to your death?

Where were his human and civil rights that night?

Where is his survival, where is his mother's, his family's dignity?

Why is it that despite all the progress in our legal status, all the recourse afforded to us in national and international human rights agreements and conventions, all the recognition of the sorry story of our historical treatment, that death, and in particular early death, is still the central motif of Indigenous family life?

Cultural rights and an inherent dilemma

The discourse of human rights was invoked to include all human beings. Specific declarations have emerged for people who have been historically accorded fewer rights than others - women, children, Indigenous people, the disabled, ethnic minorities - outlining what the bestowal of full human rights must entail for them.

In the Draft Declaration on Human Rights of Indigenous People, two main principles underscore our rights. They are, firstly, the principle of Indigenous people's right to access and to participate fully in the political, economic, social and cultural life of a state, and, secondly, the principle of maintaining our distinct languages, cultural practices, spiritual beliefs and other distinctive characteristics.

In historical terms, these principles were a contradiction in terms. In the thinking that informed Australian policy until the 1970s, at least, we could be natives with no proper access to, or participation in, the life of the state, or we could be assimilated into the European way of life and forget that we were ever natives. The difficult task that governments and Indigenous people have had to confront over the last 20-30 years is the achievement of these dual goals simultaneously.

For Indigenous people, 'human rights' on the ground are too narrowly identified with the second of these principles.

In 1993 I was part of a group which drew up the Coolangatta Statement, which sets out the background and a list of rights for Indigenous people in relation to education. The details spoke most strongly to rights to educate Indigenous children according to the values, language and knowledge of Indigenous cultures, but much less strongly in terms of history, heritage and consciousness, and absolutely not at all in individual terms.

In Australia, if you do not belong to, or if you are not recognised by a community, you cannot call yourself Indigenous. There is a tremendous amount of power accorded to communities over individuals. And there is tremendous regulatory pressure on individuals to be Indigenous in predetermined ways, to think about their identity in certain ways and to enact their lives in particular ways.

For some Indigenous people, survival, dignity and well-being are intimately connected to land, to spirit, to community, to language and to cultural knowledge and practices associated with this belonging. For other Indigenous people, survival, dignity and wellbeing are connected to the desire to find a safe, respected and acknowledged place in the nation-state and in the world. In short, a desire for a larger freedom to participate outside cultural boundaries without losing the right to define oneself as Indigenous.

The dilemma in Indigenous education

In educational practice, the honouring of cultural difference has been linked to improvements in outcomes. But as time passes, the rate of improvement slows. For example, high-school retention rates have been dropping since 1993, after an initial increase.

One of the reasons is a tacit assumption in education that if we attend to issues of cultural appropriateness and special provision, then everything else will fall into place. But success has been limited, and Indigenous students still largely depend on access and special entry provisions to enter university. They are most often enrolled in specially designed courses, and they often struggle to manage in mainstream courses even with tutoring and additional help. And these are the ones who get through. High school retention rates for Indigenous students are lower than for any other group. Just as a for instance, in all of South Australia for 1999, 46 Indigenous students graduated with SACE certificates.

This is not to distract from the achievements of those Indigenous students who do succeed. But I have heard the situation in universities described as a two-tier system. And it makes me weep for Indigenous students, because they have great capacity and they deserve better.

Culturally appropriate content and learning styles will not equip Indigenous school students for higher education or the competitive workplace. What is required for higher education is excellent English language skills - written and spoken, skills of argument and persuasion, analytical skills, and good general knowledge, or at least enough to contextualise and relate to non-Indigenous subjects. And yet, we don't talk about these things because we are frightened of taking children away from their cultural tradition.

Another disservice we have done is to propagate the idea that if something is not Indigenous in content then it is not relevant to the Indigenous student. This is just sheer nonsense. It is patronising and it is negligent. And yet we give time to this idea because we do not want to strip children of their cultural knowledge.

Another mis-perception is that if Indigenous students don't see their culture reflected in the school they won't want to go there. More nonsense. The fact is they won't go into hostile environments where they are marginalised, bullied, subjected to racism and ignored in the classroom. Who would? And yet we think all those things will disappear if we insert a cultural presence in schools.

Indigenous students fail for the same reasons as the many other students who fail - they are not connected to learning appropriately, their skills and knowledge are not developed, they do not see themselves in a future that requires those skills and knowledge, and they cannot force themselves daily into an environment that demoralises and diminishes them.

The greatest disservice done to Indigenous students is in the area of language. The positing of loss of traditional language as directly caused by the uptake of English as a second language is perhaps the greatest travesty of justice visited on Indigenous students. Just as tragic as the stripping and prohibition of traditional languages in playgrounds in our own formal schooling.

Lack of English denies access to full participation in the life of the nation. It closes off higher education and employment in many workplaces. It denies access to information, the basis of the global economy. And still I sit and listen to argument after argument about why the English language is a dangerous thing for Indigenous people and communities.

Indigenous children deserve better. They deserve some rethinking of these entrenched positions. We are inadvertently holding many capable Indigenous children in a position of disadvantage because we are frightened that success in the mainstream will lead to the eradication of our distinctiveness.

A case for a progressive agenda

All cultures that have survived have changed and adapted. Indigenous Australians are doing this everyday in their daily lives, and their identity as Indigenous people has not been taken away. And yet Indigenous reform is weighed down by conservative and reactive thinking, and it is rebounding on our children. Our thinking lacks imagination and risk. It's retrospective. It's about capturing loss. This is part of our task. The restoration project is for some of us to do. But in education there is a bigger task, and that is re-imagining our futures.

We should be braver and concentrate on equipping our children with the knowledge and skills necessary to deal with ambiguities and contradictions. These are complex higher order skills, which draw from daily experience of their cultural location, and not from superficial representations of Indigenous cultures or from idealised versions of 'community'.

My cousin's son was denied the most basic human right, which is life. Those who chased him to his death should be accountable under the law, which serves us all. But when it comes to Indigenous children, I think we all are accountable. We continue to fail them. And the tears I wept for my elders as they died, and then for my own generation as they died and now for the younger generation as they die, have changed from the tears of confusion, to tears of anger, to tears of indescribable sorrow. Because, children are always the source of hope - the motivation for renewed effort. To see hope extinguished so senselessly is too much.

We have to equip Indigenous children for the larger freedom and trust that we have the capacity to reshape and redefine our identity as we go. I say, give progressive agendas a 'fair go': better to take a risk and lose our children to prosperity than to confine them to disadvantage and early death.

This is an abridged version of a Keynote paper delivered at the Human Rights: A Fair Go for All Conference, 6-8 December 2000, hosted by the John Curtin International Institute at Curtin University of Technology in conjunction with the National Committee on Human Rights Education.


Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples
Aboriginal students
Education policy
English as an additional language
English language teaching
Human rights
School culture
Social justice